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20 years and counting

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Roleplay has been around since the first child was old enough to use his imagination. Over time, as adults discovered that it was still fun despite growing older, roleplaying games were created. When those who desired to play found it difficult to connect with others, play by mail games came into existence to satisfy the desire to create new worlds and write exciting characters. Those games took on a new life with the rise of the internet. Members of a group would get together in chat rooms and spend hours writing out various scenarios and reactions. Play by mail eventually made its way to e-mail.

As with anything, nothing last forever, but some games have boasted more staying power. Starbase 118 is one such game and today I had the opportunity to learn a bit more about this sim from the group’s very own founder.

DeVeau: So I might as well start with the big news first – SB118 celebrates its twentieth anniversary! Did you ever expect that group you started way back in 1994 would ever last this long?

Wolf: Never in a million years did I think it would last this long. But honestly, I can’t really see my life without this community. It’s so ingrained into my daily habits, and my story of self, that it’s hard to ever think about walking away. I’m 33 — I’ve been leading this group for well more than half my life at this point!

Most days, it’s just about taking it step-by-step and getting to next month, rather than a year, ten years, or longer. I try and think about things like our awards process, Executive Council appointments, and staff promotions in the long-term, really thinking ahead, but most everything else is about the here-and-now. Even with 20 years of experience under our belt, we haven’t cracked the “member acquisition” nut, so it’s always a struggle to ensure that the fleet is growing, but also maintaining members.

DeVeau: What were some of the struggles that you faced in the early days of the community and how did you resolve them?

Wolf: First, the DRAMA. I think the population of people who were online at the time was a little more eccentric than we have now, and there was an incredible amount of drama that went into simming and administrating the group. Lots of very vicious arguments and personality conflicts.

Second, there wasn’t a lot of software that made things easy. Nowadays, we have a wiki, a forum, a website, and Google Groups. In the earliest days, just getting a website online was a monumental task.

DeVeau: The group started with a single ship – why the decision to turn it into a fleet?

Wolf: Lots of the details are lost to time — and I don’t have a great memory — but my general recollection is simply that we had such an influx of people we had to put them somewhere! It was less about a deliberate intention to create a fleet and more about a need to accommodate the people who wanted to join. There’s a stark difference in the atmosphere of today’s simming and those early days. There wasn’t a lot to “do” on the internet (or AOL). There were no MMORPGs, and no Facebook. The internet felt more like an active hobby, rather than a passive experience, as it seems to be today. You were intentional about using your time online, rather than using it as a reference or a way to waste time, if that makes sense.

DeVeau: Will you tell us a little bit about the evolution of the government of SB118?

Wolf: Let me try and condense this down as tightly as possible, since it’s a topic that probably deserves its own dissertation! At the very beginning, there wasn’t much of a government. With so few captains, we just kinda bandied around decisions via email in a very casual way. And there weren’t so many decisions to make since the Academy, the promotions processes, and so-forth came a few years in. We didn’t have forums until 2002, and the wiki didn’t come online until 2004, so we didn’t really have any of the contests or teams that we do now. Things were a lot simpler and there wasn’t as much administrative stuff to talk about.

Once we grew to more than five or six ships, we pulled together the “High Rankers Council,” which then grew quite rapidly to include a dozen captains, at least that many first officers and so-forth. It was hard to get anything done in that environment, since there were a lot of very strong personalities, there wasn’t much of a template to work from, and there were very divergent ideas about how things should work.

One thing I should mention is that there was a much more independent streak at the time, in captains. There was less of a “fleet mentality” because the population of people who wanted to join was so large, captains felt like it was much easier to go it alone. In that way, the fleet was more beholden to the captains to stay with us — it was a “captain’s market,” if you will. The “coalition” of ships we had was tenuous, and there were a few that broke away. The phrase “Captain’s Autonomy” was something you heard a lot among the captains of the fleet — any time there was a contentious decision that was the rallying cry. Commanding Officers wanted to avoid being told what to do, by the fleet. (There were many sim groups that dictated the terms of plot and were much more controlling about what each ship did. There was a high level of fear that we would try and do that, which is never something I had interest in.)

As time went on, I think that our community was able to prove to our community and prospective commanding officers that there’s a benefit to not only coalescing together, but also cooperating more closely and handing over some authority to the fleet itself. I’m talking about the ability to promote beyond the rank of Lieutenant Commander without oversight and things like that. I think it’s now evident to our commanding officers that there’s a good reason to have systems, oversight, and a strong set of rules that not only take some of the work off their shoulders, but also ensures the survival of their ship. Without the fleet, the responsibility to recruit and train new members would fall on the COs themselves, and that’s quite a burden. Our system — for those who aren’t familiar — puts Lieutenant Commanders into the Academy training program as trainers, which gives them vital experience in preparation for commanding a ship. In turn, new cadets benefit from the experience of those officers in training. It all works quite efficiently, and as I said above, the benefit to COs of fitting in to this system is much greater than trying to maintain autonomy at the expense of time and effort.

So to bring it back to the evolution of our government, as we slowly, slowly moved toward minimizing this concept of “Captain’s Autonomy” and pushing for a more fleet-centric community, we needed a more flexible and responsive system of government. Captain Brian Kelly, who was a lawyer IRL, drafted the Constitution in such a way to divide the command between two groups that overlapped in membership — the Captains Council, and the Executive Council. The EC would be smaller and have faster responsiveness to the urgent situations. It also made the lines much clearer to prospective COs about what was in their power and what wasn’t.

But I should say that, even to this day, the EC can at times be a controversial concept. Some captains chafe under the idea that some decisions are made by a small group of people which they aren’t a part of. It’s a difficult balance in trying to keep our COs happy, and keep the fleet healthy. Sometimes those two concepts are at odds with each other.

The more time goes on, though, the more we staff have a sense of “the way things are and ‘always’ have been,” which can both help and hurt us. It gives us a sense of stability — a keel, if you will — so that when things get difficult, we can look at past history as a guide for how things should, and shouldn’t work. But it can also make us sclerotic, and avoid risks that we should be taking. Again, it’s a delicate balance trying to keep ourselves just uncomfortable enough to be innovative, while also honoring our traditions and staying within the guidelines we’ve set up for ourselves based on our past experience.

DeVeau: Other than it’s style of government and longevity, how would you say SB118 differs from other Star Trek sims out there?

Wolf: This is a bit difficult for me to say since I don’t have much experience with other groups. I’ve never had the time to participate in other sims since I founded UFOP: SB118, except for a few small MUDs based on Myst and Firefly. (Before I founded our group, I participated in another Star Trek sim, and also a sim based around a medieval castle, which I still remember fondly.)

I have a rather vague sense that there are many other groups which have a much more open concept — anyone can become a CO as long as they find a crew — but I don’t really know the specifics of how most operate. I do know that many other groups don’t use the script format anymore, which was really the dominant format in the early days of simming. I’ve approached other groups about possible cooperation or even mergers to build our power, but this has been a real sticking point with other groups, and with our own members and staff members.

I definitely think that one of the biggest things that differentiates us is the sense of professional pride and the view that this is something more than just simming. I really take very seriously the idea of encouraging our staff to learn how to communicate effectively, provide real feedback to people, take constructive criticism, and be a leader. I feel like it’s our duty to not only guide our members into better writing, but also to ensure that our staff come away from the group feeling like they’ve learned something important about how to work with people. In my own life, I feel that this community has given me an incredible skill-set in working with others.

DeVeau: SB118 is so unique in that it’s not just a sim, it’s a community with a very welcoming spirit. That is an aspect that I’ve found many other sims don’t have – how does SB118 stay so positive and inviting?

Wolf: As above, I think it’s an element of professional pride. And we’ve really had a strong focus on trying to streamline our processes, make everything as simple and friendly for new people as possible, and bring them into the fold quickly. I’ve done a lot of my own personal research on how people make the decision to join a community, and what they need to feel welcome, and I try and integrate that into our systems and procedures.

DeVeau: What do you hope to see in the future for SB118?

Wolf: That’s a tough question because, honestly, I don’t think about it too much. I feel like this community is a constant force — something that’s been here for a long time and will remain for a long time.

I suppose I can divulge some crazy fantasies I’ve had about the success of the group or the ways it would change, to answer your question:

First, I’ve often considered finding ways to ally with other simming communities. It’s obviously very difficult to find people who are interested in text-based simming these days, and I think that a larger organization could not only leverage its own user base, but also command a larger audience on social media and other sites where recruiting happens. So I’d like to eventually see a situation where we find a way to merge with another organization, or absorb one.

Second, I hope that Star Trek sees some kind of revitalization which would lead to a greater audience. I’m not sure how we’d fit in to a “reimagined” Star Trek universe if it ever came to television, since we are very particular about the timeline we sim in, but it would be great to have a more prosperous recruiting funnel.

Third, on a more technical note, I’d love to find a way to have greater integration between our forums, wiki, and website, which I believe are a bit onerous to navigate in terms of usernames and so forth. If I had a million dollars to spend, the first thing I would do is hire someone to create a unified system for our training pipeline that managed and tracked the fleet, allowed people to log in to the forums and wiki with the same username, and managed our sims. Maybe I’ll win the lottery icon smile 20 years and counting

Fourth and finally, simply being optimistic, I hope this community gets the recognition it deserves from the media that cover Star Trek. The age and cohesion of our community is truly spectacular, and it’s unfortunate that some other organizations which are of lower quality and younger age have managed to grab more of the spotlight, while we’ve remained a bit hermited. I hope we can change that.

Regardless, I do think that this is an institution that will have no trouble maintaining for a very long time to come.

Photo source: Tomlin Campbell photo for Wizard World.

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